There's greater pressure than usual on Bordeaux this year, but will the unveiling of the 2014 vintage in just one week from now be a pivotal moment for the en primeur system? Read the views of several market experts below.
Even the most sunnily optimistic Medoc chateau owner would be forced to admit that the past three en primeur campaigns have been less than successful, blighted by a combination of variable quality and eyebrow-raising release prices from some estates.
With a challenging market and a sizeable secondary market for back vintages, there’s a growing feeling that something has to give with the 2014 vintage.
A dozen-strong chorus of UK merchants said in an open letter to Bordeaux chateaux and negoces that prices should return to the level of the 2008 vintage campaign, which took place in the shadow of a threatened global economic apocalypse. The problem isn’t just the past three vintages, they argued – their customers are also facing ‘significant losses’ on their purchases of 2009s and 2010s.
Beyond the bald economics, there have also been rumblings of discontent surrounding the annual round of tastings in en primeur week: three top chateaux – Haut-Bailly, La Conseillante and Figeac – will this year join the ranks of those estates which only show wines at their own estates, rather than taking part in official tastings.
That’s ‘disappointing’, said Union des Grands Crus president Olivier Bernard, because it creates difficulties for visitors.
But, several Bordelais have argued that 2014 is the best vintage since 2010.
So, is Bordeaux 2014 a make-or-break vintage for en primeur?
‘Bordeaux has had three lacklustre en primeur campaigns with the 2011, 2012 and 2013 vintages, and to restore consumer faith in this system, 2014 needs to succeed,’ said Tim Sykes, head of buying at The Wine Society. ‘The good news is that 2014 looks like it will be a better vintage. The bad news is that release prices are unlikely to come down.’
For Corney & Barrow managing director Adam Brett-Smith, pricing is usually dictated by the market price of the preceding vintage. ‘In 2010 and 2009 that mechanism was broken,’ he argued. ‘There was a break with logic. In 2011, ’12 and ’13 the problem was that the prices were inevitably pegged to the anchor of 2010, but that anchor was already dragging,’ he said. ‘That’s why 2014 is so important, because the terms of reference have to be disengaged from 2011, 12 and ’13.’
Overpriced 2014s, said David Elswood, head of Christie’s wine department, might prompt people to invest in older vintages instead, such as 2005, 2009 or 2010. ‘It’s hard to think back to a period where we’ve had four poorly received vintages in a row,’ he said. ‘If they were thinking as salesmen rather than producers, they would understand that the priority is to get it sold.’
‘I don’t know how often you buy a new car,’ said Thomas Duroux, CEO of Margaux third-growth Chateau Palmer. ‘When I buy a new car, I do all I can to get the best price. So every year with the English wine merchants – who are the best wine merchants in the world – there is the same question. They are trying to get the best price possible.’
Duroux admitted there is pressure on Bordeaux 2014 en primeur after three ‘difficult’ years, but sees no sense in going back to 2008 pricing. ‘That was a very different time,’ he argued. ‘The first growths were sold at £140-£150 a bottle by the negoce. Today, could you find a first growth anywhere for £150? I am not sure the 2008 vintage is a good reference.’
Maison Sichel export director Charles Sichel believes last year should have been the watershed. ‘2013 was the absolute perfect vintage in which we should have come down significantly in price,’ he said. ‘There was little available, and the selection process had to be drastic to produce quality.’ He also maintained that, while the merchants’ open letter – with which he ‘fully concurs’ – was addressed to negociants, ‘we don’t really have an impact on the pricing of the chateaux’.
Written by Richard Woodard